Maha Shivaratri – The night of Lord Shiva
Maha Shivaratri, which means “night of Lord Shiva,” is celebrated with great enthusiasm throughout the whole of India. It falls on the 13th and 14th days of the dark half (waning moon) of the month of Maagha, which occurs on March 3rd in 2011 …
Devotees fast throughout the entire day and night, performing an all-night vigil during which hymns of praise to Lord Shiva are sung with great devotion. The Panchakshara Mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya” is repeated throughout the night, while the Shiva Lingam is symbolically bathed every three hours with milk, curd, honey or rose water.
About Lord Shiva
Shiva is part of the Hindu Trinity (along with Brahma and Vishnu), and is known as both the destroyer and renewer of life. He is referred to by various names, such as Shankar, Neelakanth, Shambhu, Mahesh, Nataraj, etc.
He is also known as Yoganath, “the Lord of Yoga,” and is considered the Adhi Guru, or “highest teacher,” while at the same time representing both the path of yoga and its ultimate goal.
Symbolism of the Shiva Lingam
The word lingam literally means “a sign”, or “an indicator (of something higher).” It is a symbol of both “form” and “formlessness,” and of the eternal, imperceptible nature of time.
It is also symbolic of the “Universal Pillar” around which creation revolves – that which supports and sustains material manifestation.
It is representative of a “Cosmic Bindu,” a link between the manifest and the un-manifest – the material universe, and the unseen, cosmic realm.
The Origins of Maha Shivaratri
Lord Shiva’s Favourite Day
It is said that on this day, Lord Shiva was married to Parvati. It is also told that when Parvati asked Lord Shiva what his favourite day is, he indicated Shiva Ratri because the fasting, ceremonial baths and offerings by his devotees on that day bring him great joy.
The Churning of the Ocean
Lord Shiva is perhaps most widely recognized in the tale of the Churning of the Great Ocean, which is also honoured on Maha Shivaratri.
It was told that at the depths of the Ocean of Milk, which is symbolic of the “Ocean of Human Consciousness,” lies the Amrita Mantham, the “nectar of bliss and immortality.” Both the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (Demons) sought after this treasure. In order to procure it, however, they had to work together – so placing mount Meru on the back of Kurma (the tortoise), and using the serpent Vasuki as a rope, they began to churned the Great Ocean.
Out of that churning came many wonderful things, such as Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow. But the Halahala, the poison that could destroy the whole world, also came forth. The Gods prayed to Shiva for protection. He appeared and drank the poison, thus saving the world. In doing so, his neck (kanthaha) turned blue (neelaha), and so he also become known as Neelakantha, “the one with the blue throat.”
The Story of King Chitrabhanu
In the Guruda Purana, the story is told of a King named Chitrabhanu who ruled a long time ago. When, on the day of Maha Shivaratri, the King was asked why he fasted, he replied that he had the gift of remembering his past lives, and that in his previous birth he had been a hunter named Suswara.
One day, before the new moon, Suswara roamed the forest in search of animals. Having no success, and being overtaken by nightfall, he climbed a Beal tree for shelter. To pass the time, he plucked the Beal leaves and let them fall to the ground. Thinking all night of his poor family who were left without food and anxiously awaiting his return, he wept.
Many years later, at the time of his death, two Divine messengers came to escort him to the abode of Lord Shiva. It was at this time that he learned of the immense merit that he had attained that one night, long ago, for at the base of the Beal tree, wherein he took refuge for the night, was a Shiva Lingam. Beal leaves are considered sacred, and so his dropping of them onto the Lingam imitated a ritual worship. At the same time, the tears that he shed throughout the night had gently washed the Lingam clean. Thus, unconsciously he had worshipped the Lord throughout the entire night.
It’s these actions of worship, devotion and bathing of the Lingam that are still reflected in the night-long rituals of Mahashivratri today.
The Deeper Dimensions of Shivaratri
The ceremony of Mahashivaratri confronts two dominant forces that afflict mankind: rajas (restlessness) and tamas (dullness, inertia). The vrata (resolve or discipline) of the night-long vigil of Maha Shivaratri helps to overcome these afflictions.
Excessive motion is restrained, and through the constant utterance of the Panchakshara Mantra, turbulent mental activity such as lust, anger, and jealousy, are subdued. The night-long vigil also burns off sloth, or tamas, and the ritualistic activities performed throughout the night, which demand constant vigilance and discipline, purify the mind.
As we wash the lingam with perfect concentration and devotion on Maha Shivaratri, we pray to the Divine to bathe us in the milk of wisdom, to wash away our ignorance and our idle tendencies, to extinguish the fires of unruly passions, and to shine the light of eternal oneness into our souls so that we may find liberation, once and for all from the pangs of worldly existence.